Authors: Jane Haddam
A breeze began to blow as the bells began to ring outside, and on it came Lenore, slipping slyly through the one open window like the prophecy of doom Shelley Linnington was always complaining about during office hours. Steve Jacoby saw her, shrieked, dropped to the floor and cried out, “It is she! It is she! Her shade hounds me to the grave and calls me murderer!”
It might have been a quotation. Alice Elkinson didn’t know. She also didn’t care. On top of the fact that this was Halloween, there was also the fact that she’d had a bad and restless night. She was not a woman who reacted well to less than an optimal amount of sleep, and she was not reacting well now. Her head ached. She picked up the papers she had fanned out across the desk when class began—photocopies of the ones the students had presented—and slapped them into a stack. They were held together by paper clips and therefore impossible to discollate. She had intended to bring them down the hall and read them during what she was sure would be a very silent office hour. She now knew she would bring them, but she wouldn’t read them. She had a copy of Judith Krantz’s
in the top right-hand drawer of her desk. She would read that.
“All right, people,” she said, “if you wouldn’t mind getting in touch with your fellow members of this seminar, we will be covering Henry Ford and the five-dollar-a-week wage next session. If anybody sees Mr. Jack Carroll, please tell him I would like to present his paper on the effects of wage spirals on mass consumption then.”
“What about Lenore?” Ted Barrows said. “She could present a paper on the effects of the industrial revolution on birds.”
“No she couldn’t,” Shelley Linnington smirked. “She lives out here. Out here hasn’t been through the industrial revolution yet.”
Ted Barrows turned sideways, raised his eyebrows, and smirked back at Shelley Linnington. Alice thought:
Oh, Lord. Now I’m going to have to spend the rest of the term watching Shelley Linnington discover one of the great facts of female life. Self-confidence is everything.
What had ever given the United States Congress the idea that college students were old enough to vote?
Lenore had come to rest on the stack of papers. “Croak a cloak,” she said. Alice brushed her off and picked the papers up.
“Until next week,” Alice said, to a classroom that was half-empty. While her mind was somewhere else, half the students had sneaked out the door. She shooed the bird away, got the papers wedged as tightly as she could under her arm and went out herself.
Out in the corridor, it was better, because it was quieter, but it wasn’t as good as it could be. Going up the stairs to her office, Alice ran into Katherine Branch. Katherine was bobbing and weaving to some music inside her head. That was always a bad sign, as far as Alice was concerned. Katherine in a self-confident mood was Katherine up to trouble. Usually, Katherine wore her victimization like a crown: revolutionary sainthood on the cheap; martyrdom on tenure and fifty thousand a year.
“Talked to the police,” Katherine said. “As a high, I recommend it.”
Katherine zipped down the stairs and Alice continued up, wondering what that was all about. It was the kind of question it was never safe to ask about Katherine.
Alice got to the third floor, pushed through the fire doors and turned the corner into the corridor. She saw the man immediately, although she didn’t exactly recognize him. He was standing at the far end, near the door to her office, reading notices on the corkboard on the wall. He was too tall, too fat, too slouched, and too formal—where had he gotten that navy blue pin-striped suit?—to be a fellow academic. Anyway, she knew all the older men on the faculty of this college. She studied his face until she placed it: that man, that friend of Tibor Kasparian’s who was helping the police, Gregor Demarkian.
She walked up to him, looked at the corkboard from around his back—he seemed to be studying a notice about a meeting of the Federalist Club—and said, “Mr. Demarkian? Can I help you with something?”
“What?” He abandoned the corkboard. “Oh. Dr. Elkinson. No. I was just reading.”
Alice tried to take him in but he seemed like—nothing. He was too round and soft and old for her to take him seriously. “It must seem pitifully provincial after some of the places you’ve been. Sometimes I wonder what our students think when they get out into the real world and find that none of this matters.”
“Their educations matter, surely?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how educated they get. Sometimes I think some of them just float through here on their way to their MBAs. Or their masters in social work, what with the changes in fashion.”
Alice got her keys out of her pocket and began to unlock the door to her office. It was right across the hall from the corkboard, not a distance that would require stopping the conversation. That was good, because she found she didn’t want to stop the conversation. Talking to Gregor Demarkian was oddly soothing. She got the door unlocked and pushed it open.
“Do you want to come inside and sit down? You look done in. If you weren’t in that suit, I’d say you’d just got back from one of Ken’s climbs up Hillman’s Rock.”
“Oh, no. Nothing that strenuous. I was just making a fool of myself in Constitution House. Are you sure you want me to come in? I don’t want to interfere with your work.”
“You won’t be interfering with my work,” Alice said, “although God only knows I have enough to do. Magnum opus number four due at the University of Chicago Press three weeks ago, and I haven’t even finished writing the conclusion. Don’t worry about it. I’m supposed to be holding office hours. It’s Halloween. No one will come. Come on in. I’ll make us some tea.”
Gregor Demarkian seemed to hesitate, but it wasn’t for long. He followed Alice into her office, using his foot to push the little rock prop she kept on the floor into position. Alice opened her window to let in the cross-breeze and plugged the hot water maker into the socket next to her desk. When she turned around, Demarkian was looking at her degrees in their frames on the wall.
“Very impressive,” he said. “In fact, all this is very impressive. Berkeley for your doctorate. Swarthmore undergraduate.”
“Oh,” Alice said, amused. “I’ve always been impressive. That’s what I do with my life.”
“It seems a little like overkill for a place like Independence College,” Gregor said, “unless they’re paying you a great deal of money.”
Alice laughed. “They don’t. They did give me tenure when I was practically an adolescent, though, so I suppose it works out. And they give me the time to write. That’s important.”
“Mmm,” Gregor said.
Alice turned away. “So,” she said, “do you want to ask me all kinds of questions? That phony policeman David Markham already has, but in the movies I see the police always ask everything four or five times.”
“I’m not the police.”
“I know you’re not. That doesn’t matter, does it?”
Gregor Demarkian shrugged. “Sometimes I think it does, and sometimes I think it doesn’t. I suppose there are a few things I could ask you, if you feel like answering questions.”
“I don’t feel like answering questions, I feel like hearing questions,” Alice said. “Then I’ll know how the minds of the police are working, and I can go back to Ken and be a fascinating woman. Unfortunately, you aren’t going to ask me what I was doing at the time of the crime, because you know what I was doing. Standing right there next to the victim in plain sight of half the college.”
“Mmm,” Gregor Demarkian said. “What about the victim? Do you happen to remember what she was carrying on her tray?”
“You mean on her cafeteria tray? She had a cup of tea, I remember that. She—” Alice stopped.
Gregor Demarkian cocked his head at her. “What is it?”
Alice shook her head.
She wasn’t sure what it was. It was funny how much you forgot about traumatic eruptions into your life. She remembered that from the aftermath of the attack at Berkeley. For a couple of weeks she had been fine, and then things had begun to surface, details and particulars she had repressed so well she’d actually forgotten all about them. It had made her feel like a fool at the time, and it made her feel a little like a fool now. A scholar was supposed to be a noticing person, in spite of all that nonsense about ivory towers and absentmindedness. She had made it her business to be a noticing person. She shook her head again.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “It’s not something—when she came through the cash register, what she had on her tray was a cup of tea. Nothing else. I’m sure of that.”
Alice felt herself blushing slightly, giving in to the perennial curse of the fair haired. “It was later,” she told him, “after we’d paid up. We were standing in the middle of things, so to speak, and she was—I know it must have looked like I was talking to her the whole time—”
“—but I wasn’t. There was Ken there and I was talking to him, looking away from her, just before it happened. And when I turned back—this is going to sound very strange—when I turned back I could swear to God she was swallowing something.”
“Solid or liquid?”
“Liquid,” Alice said positively, and was surprised to realize she was positive.
“The tea,” Gregor said gravely. “She could have been drinking the tea.”
Alice shook her head. “I wasn’t doing an analysis at the time,” she said, “right after that Maryanne fell over and I wasn’t doing an analysis of anything. But I can swear to you that that tea hadn’t been touched.”
“Because it was slopping. One of the things I did when I was working summers during high school was wait tables in a diner. You got much better tips if you didn’t slop the coffee. I have an eye you wouldn’t believe for when a cup is overfull, and that cup was overfull. Trust me.”
Alice felt herself blushing again. That was the kind of thing people said when they weren’t trustworthy at all, when they had something to hide. Demarkian would be a fool if he didn’t at least consider the possibility that she had something to hide, like attempted murder. She had been the one standing closest to Miss Maryanne Veer when she fell.
She braced herself for another round of questions about the cafeteria tray and the swallowing and was surprised again. Instead of pursuing the subject, Demarkian was going off on a tangent.
“Tell me about the Climbing Club,” he said. “Who’s in it? What do they do?”
“The Climbing Club?” She found it a little hard to switch gears. Why would he want to know about the Climbing Club? “We’re all in it. All the faculty in the Program, I mean. Ken and me. Katherine Branch. Everyone except Father Tibor.”
“I’ll admit I can’t see Tibor climbing rocks if he doesn’t have to. Isn’t that a strange hobby for so many of you to take up? I wouldn’t think you’d all have the talent for it.”
Alice laughed. “We don’t. Ken’s good, but I’m a mess. Jack Carroll’s supposed to be a wonder, according to Ken, but Chessey Flint—” Alice shrugged. “I think it’s like pajama parties and mixers when we were all in high school. You do it because everybody else does it. It’s part of belonging. And then, of course, “there are the people with ulterior motives, like Katherine Branch.”
“What constitutes an ulterior motive for rock-climbing?”
“In Katherine’s case, there are several. In the first place, she has to try it, just to prove to herself and everybody else that she hasn’t been turned into a puling little wimp by the sexist expectations of a patriarchal society. Relax, Mr. Demarkian. I’m quoting. Anyway, then, of course, she’s got to fail—”
“Certainly. If she succeeds at everything she wants to do—and Katherine’s got the talent for that, Mr. Demarkian, don’t let all that nonsense with the witchcraft fool you—anyway, if she succeeds, her whole philosophy goes up in smoke. The patriarchal society hasn’t wounded her. She’s nobody’s victim. Good Lord, she’d have to throw all the scholarship she’s done up to this point in the trash can and start over from scratch.”
she have a talent for rock-climbing?”
“According to Ken she did. About ten times better than she ever let on. It used to drive him crazy.”
“Katherine gave it up at the beginning of this term. Stopped coming to meetings. Stopped going on climbs. She said she refused to join any organization where even the women voted for men for president.”
Gregor Demarkian seemed to consider this, shifting back and forth in the chair he had chosen—the most uncomfortable one in the room. Alice wondered why he had done that. There was a perfectly good stuffed armchair in the corner and a wing chair next to the window. The water in her teamaker was boiling away. Alice leaned over, took the pitcher off the burner, and started searching around for her cups.
“Do you really want tea? And if you do, what kind? I’ve got six.”
“Any kind,” Gregor Demarkian said. “Can I ask you one more question?”
“Of course. But if it’s one more question about Katherine, I think I’ll go hide in the closet. The woman gives me migraines.”
“It’s not about Katherine,” Gregor Demarkian said. “I want to know what you know about Donegal Steele.”
Outside Alice Elkinson’s window, a breeze had kicked up, rustling what was left of the brown and drying leaves in the trees and bringing half-hysterical laughter and Lenore. “Croak a doak,” Lenore said, perching on the windowsill. Then she took off again, back out to wherever she went, and Alice threw a pair of tea bags into a pair of teacups. Earl Grey for herself, Darjeeling for Gregor Demarkian. Gregor Demarkian seemed to her like a Darjeeling sort of man.
Gregor Demarkian had just asked her a question about Donegal Steele.
It bothered Alice Elkinson enormously that she hadn’t expected it.
R. KENNETH CROCKETT HAD
seen Gregor Demarkian go into Liberty Hall. Ken had been coming up the path from Constitution House at the time, intent on getting some work done and dropping in on Alice’s office hours, but once he saw that tall broad figure go up the steps he changed his mind. He wasn’t in the mood to deal with any of it today—with any of anything. He’d had a long night and an even longer morning. He’d been looking for Jack Carroll for hours and getting nowhere. The boy was supposed to be on campus and on duty. In a social sense, this, was the most important night of his college career. He had still managed to vanish so completely, he might as well have been the invisible man. Ken had talked to Freddie and Max and Ted, and the situation was worse than any he could have imagined. Jack hadn’t just vanished. He had ceased to exist. Even his best friends didn’t know where he had gone.